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WHISTLER, British Columbia – Late Monday night, a cross section of an Olympic Alpine ski team was tucked in a nook of a cozy Whistler bar. The clock was about to round midnight, and a pitcher of beer in the middle of the table was bottoming out. Outside, the fluorescent glow of a lamp was dappled by a barrage of snowflakes. A coach topped off his beer and looked out a window at the carnage.
"So, what do you think?" a visitor asked, looking for a vote of confidence that the day's next big event – the men's super-combined – would actually take place.
The coach made a sour face and shook his head skeptically. Then he raised his hand to the barkeep, calling for another pitcher. He knew what was coming: Alpine skiing in the Vancouver Games – an event representing a major draw in every Winter Olympics – was on its way to standing down. Again.
A few hours later, word came that heavy snow had forced the cancellation of a women's training session and the postponement of the men's super-combined. Which means that four of the last five days in Alpine skiing have been rendered null and void. But it's the larger picture that is suddenly raising concern. With nine major skiing events to complete in the next 12 days, the schedule is looking perilously tight. If weather prevents those races from happening in the allotted time, officials are going to be forced into emergency mode. That could mean doubling up on events in a single day, or possibly even the doomsday scenario: simply canceling events that can't be completed.
If you want to see race officials cringe, just raise the latter as a possibility. Events have never extended beyond an Olympic Closing Ceremony at a modern-era Winter Games, and with Vancouver's effort already encountering a litany of problems, canceling events would be a crushing blow. Not only would it be a public-relations disaster for Vancouver and the Games as a whole, but it would also be an embarrassment to an International Olympic Committee that knew significant weather problems could arise when it awarded these Games to this city.
"Everybody has been talking about this since the Games were given to Vancouver," said women's race director Atle Skaardal. "It's very unstable conditions here. But that's part of our business. It's not the only Alpine ski site with weather problems. It was well known about the wet, humid, warm winter weather here. … This is exactly what people have been talking about. We have to live with that."
Skaardal and men's race director Guenter Hujara have said repeatedly over the last 72 hours that they believe there is no reason to panic – and haven't backed off those assertions with essentially only three days of wiggle room left in the schedule. Indeed, the schedule shuffling is something the directors, coaches and athletes are accustomed to, thanks to a World Cup circuit that typically faces at least a handful of delays annually.
"It's nothing new," said U.S. women's speed coach Alex Hoedlmoser. "This is something that happens on the World Cup all the time. You just have to deal with it and do the best you can."
The U.S. is doing just that, having already flown its men's slalom team back to Park City, Utah, for training races in advance of the Feb. 21 and 23 races. That's not atypical at an Olympics, although off-site training destinations are typically closer than a two-hour flight.
But training is taking a back seat to actually getting the major events up and running. While the next three days are expected to be cold and dry, there is no guarantee that the weather system will hold, let alone carry into the remainder of the Games. Particularly when you consider the Alpine courses have been treated to all of the four major perils that cause skiing delays: rain, fog, warm temperatures and heavy snowfall.
If those conditions crop up again, Skaardal suggested, this could feasibly be the first time an Alpine event was canceled in an Olympics. But there is some international precedent for such a move: In the 1993 World Championships, a run of bad weather caused the cancellation of the men's super-G.
"The Games are over on the 28th," Skaardal said. "If we can't do the skiing until that, then it's out, you know? It's clear. But I'm very confident we'll be able to do all the Alpine events before it's over. "We have to work with the plans moving forward. It doesn't make sense to make emergency plans for next week now. We have to work with the situation we have. And right now we have done a lot of adjustments."